Start Up No.1765: Apple v sideloaders, why ApeCoin?, videogames teaching history, Exxon aims to mine bitcoin, jumpers on!, and more


Back in 2013, Jeff Bezos promised us Amazon delivery drones within five years. Instead they keep crashing on test flights. CC-licensed photo by Mike Licht on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Widely available. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Amazon Delivery drones keep crashing in testing: at least eight in 13 months • Business Insider

Katherine Long:

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Amazon’s autonomous delivery drones have crashed at least eight times in the past 13 months, a review of federal crash reports and internal documents shows.

At least one of these crashes, when a drone that was being tested dropped from 160 feet, resulted in an acres-wide brush fire last June, Insider previously reported. The most recent crash Insider confirmed was at an eastern Oregon airfield on February 1 of this year.

Amazon is testing these drones under its ambitious Prime Air program, which in 2020 was granted license from the Federal Aviation Administration to test in limited capacities. Confirmation of these crashes comes as the company looks to secure new registration that would allow it to test its unmanned vehicles closer to population centres and with fewer restrictions.

The company conducted more than 2,300 drone test flights last year, according to internal documents obtained by Insider. Amazon has previously said that no one has ever been injured as a result of the company’s flight tests.

…Prime Air has suffered from high turnover, internal conflict, and product delays, Insider previously reported. The roughly 800-person division had a turnover rate higher than 20% last year, according to an internal document, including departures from Amazon’s Prime Air headquarters in the UK, where 100 people lost their jobs in a restructuring.

Most of the federal crash reports redact Amazon’s name, but Insider checked the date of the reports against screenshots of internal messages alerting employees that a crash had taken place. Most of the reports are from a range in Pendleton, Oregon, where Amazon tests its drones.

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In December 2013 Jeff Bezos insisted that Amazon drones would be making deliveries within five years. Maybe there’s some relativity effect where time is passing more slowly for us.

Of course, the military versions (not available on Amazon) are showing their mettle in what I suppose we have to call the Ukrainian theatre.
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Do you want me to leave the Apple ecosystem? • Lapcat Software

Jeff Johnson is president, CEO, founder and bottle-washer of Lapcat:

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“If you want sideloading, then you can just buy an Android phone.”

This is a ubiquitous response to the request that Apple unlock iPhone and allow installation of software from outside the App Store (which has always been possible on the Mac). It reminds me of the “America, love it or leave it” response to criticism of US government policies. Here’s my serious question: are you serious? Do you want me, a longtime software developer in the Apple ecosystem, to discontinue my iOS and Mac apps, pack up, and switch to different operating systems? Is that what you want? Moreover, do you want all supporters of so-called “sideloading” among iPhone developers and users to also ditch their iPhones and switch to Android, leaving only the lockdown adherents in the Apple ecosystem? Is the world you want one where buying and using an electronic device requires having a particular ideology?

…I suspect that the suggestion is not actually serious, and you don’t want all sideloading adherents to leave the Apple ecosystem. I doubt that Apple wants us to leave either, because that would mean lost apps from software developers and lost money in hardware sales and “services” from users. The real motivation behind the suggestion that “you can just switch to Android” is just to stifle open criticism of Apple and its policies. The suggestion is not to switch away from iPhone but rather to STFU. This is one reason why we should always dismiss the above quoted response to sideloading as empty rhetorical garbage. It’s effectively, “If you want sideloading, then I don’t care, I don’t want to hear it.”

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The EU’s Digital Markets Act might impose sideloading on Apple, which is going to make for an interesting little struggle. If Apple’s smart, it will get in front of it and make allowances similar to those Google already has with the Play Store. But knowing Apple, it will instead fight tooth and nail, insisting the App Store keeps people “safe”. But, as Johnson points out, that’s not true at all: scams run rampant. It’s just Apple profits from them, where it wouldn’t from sideloaded ones.
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There’s something off about ApeCoin • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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A core idea of web3 is that it is more open and inclusive than what came before. Before, you had to be an accredited investor to participate in a new project like Yuga Labs; today, you can simply buy some ApeCoin and begin to “participate” in the “ecosystem.” Over time, perhaps you’ll own enough ApeCoin to be able to shift the direction of the project: voting on delegates, or future projects, or whatever.

But this is a lot of power to grant to the public, and so perhaps it’s understandable that web3 startups are being stingy with it. DAOs are created, but distanced from the core intellectual property. Token holders are granted votes, but on fringe issues. Nearly half of any tokens (38%, in the case of ApeCoin) are given for free to an inner circle. Decentralisation becomes a marketing pitch — a forever promise of rewards to come, if you only buy and hold those tokens — but it’s all still centralised where it counts.

Maybe I’m being too cynical here. Bored Apes seems like a fun brand, and if any NFT project tokens are going to have lasting value, it may well be Yuga Labs’. Over the past month or so, I’ve seen Bored Apes painted on jackets in fashion boutiques in Miami, and graffitied on walls in Brooklyn. It seems possible that people will enjoy the major-label Bored Apes virtual band, or make real money off the forthcoming Bored Apes play-to-earn game.

But something still feels off to me. Self-dealing founders and investors; a hype machine in overdrive; and a growing disconnect between the web3 we were promised and the one that’s being traded on the crypto exchanges. This sleight of hand might keep working for a while. But eventually the truth catches up with you. And when it does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that decentralisation is its first casualty.

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I think decentralisation has already been a casualty; it’s just that people (the greater fools, and those who aren’t) are so keen to cash in somehow that they ignore the fact. For both, it’s convenient to pretend what’s happening is not happening.
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What happens when kids get their history from video games? • The Atlantic

Luka Ivan Jukić:

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Analysing video games is particularly difficult for two reasons. First, their influence is hard to track: Teachers may not even notice that the student asking why the Ottomans didn’t colonize America or what happened to Burgundy may have a view of history that was moulded by Paradox games. “The student in your class that knows what Prussia is is the student that played Europa Universalis IV,” Devereaux said. And second, unlike other cultural mediums, “games are about systems; they’re about the mechanics,” Devereaux told me. Those systems and mechanics are how video games can “teach” people history. The presence of such mechanics, though, does not mean that players will necessarily understand them. “The major challenge is getting players to recognise and think explicitly about these systems,” Marion Kruse, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati and a dedicated gamer, told me.

In my experience, Europa Universalis is particularly effective at teaching users about its systems. Playing in Spain in Europa Universalis, you’ll learn the power of a good marriage when you see that Spain is actually the result of a personal union between the crowns of Castile and Aragon. If you’re unlucky enough to choose a country in the Balkans, you will quickly understand the full force of the Ottoman invasions of Europe. Invade the Soviet Union in Hearts of Iron, Paradox’s Second World War simulator, and you’ll be reminded why Napoleon and Hitler both failed to subdue Russia: “General Frost.” The processes the player engages with teach them claims about how the world works—what The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost has called “procedural rhetoric.”

[Games company] Paradox’s titles don’t take a single view of history, but each game does provide a framework for understanding a particular historical period, buoyed by a number of procedural claims. Take Europa Universalis. The game essentially simulates the story of Europe’s rise from a relative backwater to a continent that dominated the world. That means that no matter what exact course the game takes, it usually results in the consolidation of large, powerful, centralised states in Europe and their rise to global primacy.

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It’s something of a curate’s egg – good in parts. In reality it’s a mess like SimCity, which builds in all sorts of very right-wing assumptions about taxation and segmentation.
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Exxon is mining bitcoin in North Dakota as part of its plan to slash emissions • CNBC

MacKenzie Sigalos:

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ExxonMobil, the top oil and gas producer in the U.S., is piloting a project to mine bitcoin in North Dakota, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

For over a year, Exxon has been working with Crusoe Energy Systems, a company based in Denver, said the people who asked not to be named because details of the project are confidential. Crusoe’s technology helps oil companies turn wasted energy, or flare gas, into a useful resource.

Similar to ConocoPhillips’ mining scheme in North Dakota’s Bakken region, Exxon is diverting natural gas that would otherwise be burned off into generators, which convert the gas into electricity used to power shipping containers full of thousands of bitcoin miners. Exxon launched the pilot in late January 2021 and expanded its buildout in July.

While Exxon hasn’t talked publicly about its work in the space, Eric Obrock, a 10-year veteran at the company, said on his LinkedIn profile that from February 2019 to January 2022, he “proposed and led the first successful commercial and technical demonstration of using Bitcoin proof-of-work mining as a viable alternative to natural gas flaring in the oil patch.”

«

Absolutely bonkers. The most amazing example of fucking for virginity.
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1999: Dig more coal — the PCs are coming • Forbes

Back in May 1999:

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Somewhere in America, a lump of coal is burned every time a book is ordered on-line.

The current fuel-economy rating: about 1 pound of coal to create, package, store and move 2 megabytes of data. The digital age, it turns out, is very energy-intensive. The Internet may someday save us bricks, mortar and catalog paper, but it is burning up an awful lot of fossil fuel in the process.

Under the PC’s hood, demand for horsepower doubles every couple of years. Yes, today’s microprocessors are much more efficient than their forerunners at turning electricity into computations. But total demand for digital power is rising far faster than bit efficiencies are. We are using more chips — and bigger ones — and crunching more numbers. The bottom line: Taken all together, chips are running hotter, fans are whirring faster, and the power consumption of our disk drives and screens is rising. For the old thermoelectrical power complex, widely thought to be in senescent decline, the implications are staggering.

About half of the trillion-dollar infrastructure of today’s electric power grid exists to serve just two century-old technologies — the lightbulb and the electric motor. Not long ago, that meant little prospect for growth in the power industry. We have about as many motors and bulbs as we need. “The long-run supply curve for electricity is as flat as the Kansas horizon,” declared green guru Amory Lovins in 1984.

…The infoelectric convergence is already having a visible impact on overall demand. At least 100 million nodes on the Internet, drawing from hundreds to thousands of kilowatt-hours per year, add up to 290bn kWh of demand. That’s about 8% of total US demand. Add in the electric power used to build and operate stand-alone (unnetworked) chips and computers, and the total jumps to about 13%. It’s now reasonable to project that half of the electric grid will be powering the digital-Internet economy within the next decade.

«

Instead: computers got faster while using less power. But then: bitcoin.
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Why Apple acquired a UK-Based ‘open banking’ fintech • Forbes

Ron Shevlin says most people have got it wrong on why Apple bought British-based Credit Kudos the other week:

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Apple has two strategic issues it must address that go beyond just offering BNPL [Buy Now Pay Later – as companies such as Klarna offer, where big-ticket items can be bought on regular payments, with the offer made at the online checkout without waiting for an external credit check] or even launching the Apple Card in the UK:

1) Building Out a Digital Commerce Ecosystem
Commerce platform providers like Block (I still think of them as Square), PayPal, Shopify, and even Klarna are building out robust digital commerce capabilities that support a wide range of functionality in the commerce ecosystem.

Square’s acquisition of AfterPay is just the icing on a digital commerce cake the company has been building for the past 10 years. (11 companies in 10 years.)

Klarna, too, has been building out a digital commerce ecosystem. (16 companies in 10 years.)

PayPal highlighted its merchant value chain capabilities in its February 2021 investor presentation with a slide titled “We’re building a comprehensive platform to power the global digital economy.”

2) Improving Its Data Management/Analytics Capability
Apple is a products company. It’s not good with data the way Google and Amazon are good at amassing and applying data.

I often half-joke that the reason Apple positions itself as a “privacy friendly” company is because it doesn’t know what to do with the data it has on its customers.

The Credit Kudos acquisition is a small—but still important—step towards correcting this deficiency in Apple’s digital commerce arsenal.

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I said that “Apple’s credit card is organised in partnership with Goldman Sachs, but this makes it look as though it’s aiming to go it alone”, which I suppose is half-right. Don’t @ me. (Via Dave Birch.)
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Workers are trading staggering amounts of data for ‘payday loans’ • WIRED

Caitlin Harrington:

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Tulloch is one of a growing number of US workers turning their personal data over to private companies in exchange for paycheck advances, fuelling an industry potentially worth up to $12bn, by some estimates. In 2020, $9.5bn in wages were accessed early, according to the research firm Aite-Novarica Group, up from $6.3bn in 2019. These early payouts can be habit-forming; a 2021 report from the Financial Health Network found that more than 70% of pay advance users took out consecutive advances.

What Tulloch didn’t know was that when he signed up for the app, a company called Argyle was retrieving the data that would be used to decide how much money to give him. It builds the technology that allows companies like B9 to extract a wealth of data from payroll accounts—up to 140 data points. These can include shifts worked, time off, earnings and promotions history, health care and retirement contributions, even reputational markers like on-time rate or a gig worker’s star rating and deactivation history. For every worker that uses its product, Argyle charges customers like B9 a fee, plus an additional monthly charge for continuous monitoring. This makes for a valuable data trove; it’s further upstream than banking data, providing a fuller picture of a worker’s earnings, deductions, and behaviour. Some estimate that payroll data could be worth $10bn. Argyle pegs it at 10 times higher.

Argyle is part of an emerging set of payroll data companies founded over the last four years to cash in on workers’ personal information. They build secure connections between payroll providers like Paychex and businesses that want to access that data, like B9. Argyle acts like a courier, shuttling data from one account to another, the same way banking data is transmitted to apps like Venmo.

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For reference, Facebook gathers almost 100 data points about you just for its ad targeting.
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Two brothers swindle over $1bn from a Turkish bank • Interesting Engineering

Can Emir:

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Two brothers from the Black Sea province of Samsun, Turkey, have been detained after embezzling a Turkish bank of over $1 billion (16 billion Turkish liras).

According to the police investigation reported in Dünya (in Turkish), two brothers in their 20s, both working in a gas station, were using a mutual account they had opened at a private bank.

The story goes that one day, the younger brother discovered a loophole in the mobile banking application and after making some 70 transactions, he transferred 16 billion liras from a bank’s investment account to their own account.

The loophole discovered by the younger brother allowed the duo to withdraw as much cash as they wanted through an investment account connected via the bank’s mobile app. The account, which was reserved for customers who were conducting stock trading, reportedly had a bug.

The younger brother told investigators that they had no money in the account when he checked it on February 26. He then selected the “investment account” option on the app when a menu came up and asked him to type in the amount of cash he wished to withdraw. “I randomly typed a number and saw the amount I wrote was transferred to my account. I decided to try typing more and, every time that amount was transferred to my account. Then we saw there were some 16 billion in our account” he reportedly said.

“I told my family about the situation and we decided to pay the outstanding debts of anyone we knew. I did it with my brother and we wired TL 80,000 to our relatives in debt” the younger brother explained.

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So, just a bug up to the point where they decided to take the money. Though if it had happened with cryptocurrency, well, that would now be their money.
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Weaning Europe off Russian energy will mean making changes • The Economist

“Charlemagne”:

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Energy prices, whether of petrol, gas or electricity, have rocketed in Europe. Some people might barely have noticed. In France, the authorities have essentially capped electricity and gas bills. Italy on March 18th added €4.4bn ($4.8bn) in subsidies to limit power-price rises for companies and consumers, on top of the €16bn already agreed in recent months. Several countries have cut petrol duties, a much-needed source of tax income. European leaders meeting in Brussels as The Economist went to press were due to discuss new state largesse to households and industry. This is the “whatever it takes” approach at work. As with Covid-19, government is paying first and will ask questions later.

What is startling is how little is being asked of Europeans. Even simple measures that might barely inconvenience people are treated as taboo. Earlier this month the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises rich-country governments, suggested that Europeans might consider turning down the thermostat by just 1ºC. What might seem like mere virtue-signalling greenery would actually cut consumption by 10bn cubic metres of natural gas over a year. That is roughly one month’s worth of Russian imports. This modest appeal was relayed by precisely nobody in office.

Some EU governments want to ban Russian oil, the Kremlin’s biggest money-spinner. Yet no one is seriously considering the obvious way of using less of it. Lowering motorway speed limits by 10kph would trim fuel use in the rich world by around 15%, not to be scoffed at when Europe is scrambling for any hydrocarbons it can get. Throw in subsidies to boost the use of public transport, a plea to work from home one day a week where possible and a ban on car use in cities on Sundays, and Europe could save perhaps a fifth of the Russian oil it imports, according to IEA figures and Charlemagne’s guesswork. These may or may not be sensible ideas. The point is that they are not being discussed.

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Possibly, s/he suggests, we’ve just lost the capacity for altruistic sacrifice. But that’s contradicted by the past two years, when we endured lockdowns both for our own good and that of others. It is puzzling that there isn’t a campaign to make this point. Perhaps it’s coming later this year, when the next 50% hike in energy prices (in the UK) arrives.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none reported.

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